The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt is a notoriously tricky interview. In my experience, most touring musicians and authors, recognizing that they're essentially doing PR for themselves, will make an effort to be forthcoming (even if all that's coming forth is the same canned answer they gave the last 47 times your unoriginal question was asked). Merritt doesn't seem particularly interested in what kind of impression he's giving, or what kind of material he's providing. It's a position that is at once completely understandable (presumably, he did not become a musician because he enjoys talking about himself, much less enjoys talking to music critics), and also absolutely the worst-case scenario for any interviewer, who really just needs to eke out a few usable quotes on deadline. In our interview, Merritt was perfectly civil (cordial, even), but he was also pretty unwilling to play along, to participate in the standard "I say some prompt words, you disgorge a quotable paragraph about your process" back-and-forth. Also, I'm usually pretty good at waiting out long pauses until the person I'm interviewing starts to talk, but he totally beat me at my own game. The resulting interview was probably one of the most awkward conversations I've ever had, and yes, I've internet dated.
Hit the jump for a slightly dramatized transcript of my conversation with Merritt; a more detailed review of the Magnetic Fields' new album Realism can be found right over here.
The Magnetic Fields are playing the Aladdin on Sunday and Monday—tickets are still available for the Monday show.
Stephin Merritt Interview
[Awkward hellos; “good morning” amended to “good afternoon,” and vice versa, once it is established that Merritt is in New York and I am in Portland.]
Alison: I was surprised to get an interview with you. I’d heard you're difficult to get a hold of.
Merritt: I’m not difficult to get hold of. I’m widely reported to be difficult to talk to and interview. I’m in fact not difficult to talk to and interview, but you know, once things are widely reported, they are then much more widely reported. I’m not the dragon I’m portrayed to be.
Alison: Do you enjoy talking about your work?
Merritt: Sure, I guess so.
Alison: As long as the questions are up to par?
Merrit: Well, yes. It was massively frustrating having to answer the questions “Why 69?” for years in a row. I no longer answer the question, “So, you have the bands the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and the 6ths, what makes them all different?” It takes ten minutes to explain that, and I can just say, “Look it up online.” I’ve said the same thing again and again for 15 years, why bother saying it again, because it takes too long.
Alison: What other questions should I dodge?
Merritt: Generally gay papers ask me if I have a boyfriend, and I refuse to comment.
Alison: Good thing we're not a gay paper. I wasn’t even going to ask.
Merritt: That’s about it for what I consider pet peeves.
[Alison asks a confusing question about synthesizer use on Magnetic Fields albums. It does not bear transcribing.]
Merritt: Realism is the third album of the no-synth trilogy. Realism completes the trilogy. The next Magnetic Fields album will presumably use synthesizers. I was waiting for there to be new technology in the synthesizer area. And now there is, happily. My roots are in electro-pop, so for me, it’s been kind of painful to have no synthesizers of any novelty come out for years at a time.
Alison: What was the new technology that made the difference?
Merritt: I refuse to say. It’s a professional secret. If I tell you, you’ll tell Bjork.
[Alison asks a pretentious question about the album’s lyrics, which are frequently about artificial-seeming or constructed realities, and how the lyrics relate to the album’s title. It does not bear transcribing.]
Merritt: The title is not about the lyrics, it’s about the production style. As in Distortion, where the production style is succinctly described by the title. It has nothing to do with the lyrics. Somebody pointed out a few days ago that on Realism there are a lot of mythological creatures in the lyrics, which is not usually true in the Magnetic Fields.
Alison: Is there a reason for that?
Merritt: Well, maybe. Mythological creatures are more commonly found in folk records than in pop records. There’s a lot of folk songs about mermaids and hardly any pop songs about mermaids.
[Merritt puts Alison on hold because the piano tuner is calling.]
Merritt: That was scary. I thought he was going to be saying that he was downstairs. You can imagine how difficult it would be to conduct an interview while in the room with a piano tuner.
[Alison attempts a joke about piano tuners. It… does not bear transcribing.]
Alison: I’ve read that the song TKTK was inspired by the film TKTK. [Note: I can’t remember what I was referencing here, I didn’t write it down when I transcribed the interview, and I can’t find the original article that made the reference—but I abso-fucking-lutely refuse to listen to this interview again to figure it out. Sorry, but you get the point.-AH] Are there any other songs on Realism with such specific influences?
Merritt: “The Dada Polka,” although the backing track was from 25 years ago, I wrote the lyrics as an answer to the Pearls Before Swine song “The Surrealist Waltz,” which is a beautiful song from roughly 1970. “From a Sinking Boat” is a shipwreck song, apparently I have a number of shipwreck songs, but I’d never noticed it until it was pointed out to me. I did have a near drowning experience as a child, so I think that imagery comes up in my lyrics without my intending it to, and then it gets pointed out to me embarrassingly in interviews.
Alison: What did you almost drown in?
Merritt: The Pacific Ocean. “I Don’t Know What to Say” is a song that I have always wanted to write, because it’s a song that one could write without the slightest bit of inspiration. So I was sitting around at piano bar thinking ugh, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to say…. And then I remembered that decades earlier I had had precisely that idea under similar circumstances, as an idea for a song, so I finally got around to writing it.
Alison: [Encouraging noise.]
Merritt: That’s the best kind of song, the song that writes itself. Like “Punk Love.” “That’s one of my favorite songs on the record 69 Love Songs. It’s so iconic. You never have to wonder how it goes. And it gets faster and faster while rising in pitch, which is something that all punk songs ought to do, but only that one actually does.
Merritt & Alison: [Long pause.]
Merritt: I like to believe, although it’s obviously not true, that every song has its ideal form, and that you have to find it. Like Michelangelo’s David, discovering that perfect body within the rock that is the unformed song.
Alison: [Incoherent mumbling.]
Merritt: There is not a single approach that I take to songwriting. If there were I would be trying to get my way out of it. I’m always trying for variety.